Pakistan’s moratorium on executions hangs in the balance

Behram Khan, is scheduled for execution in Karachi, Pakistan this Saturday (tomorrow).

If he is hanged, it will be the first death sentence carried out in Pakistan since 2008, effectively ending an unofficial moratorium in the country which has lasted almost four years. It would also be the first under the current government.

Khan was sentenced to death on 23 June 2003 for the murder of lawyer Mohammad Ashraf, whom he apparently mistakenly thought was representing a man accused of killing his uncle.

Appeals against Behram Khan’s death sentence were rejected, as was a mercy petition submitted to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. On 17 May however, the President issued a stay order, postponing the execution until 30 June. That sort of torturous use of the pause button must only add to the mental anguish of Khan and his family.

Perhaps Khan’s is not the most sympathetic of death penalty cases. It appears he did intend to kill a lawyer, but in the end, he got the wrong lawyer. His was an act of vengeance and I suppose that that is one of the justifications put forward by supporters of the death penalty. The problem is that if he is executed, the cycle is perpetuated and it brings to mind the adage; an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. If not blind, it certainly seems short sited at best to kill a man, for killing a man, who defended a man, who killed a man – that hardly seems like the sort of story with a finite end.

Amnesty opposes the death penalty in all cases as the cruellest form of torture, regardless of the circumstances, and in this case in particular, there is a real fear that the first execution in Pakistan in nearly four years would open the door to further executions.

We are calling on President Zardari to commute the death sentence of Behram Khan as a matter of urgency. This step backwards would be at odds with a global trend towards abolition of the use of the death penalty.

If President Zardari were to intervene, it would not be an unprecedented move. He has already commuted a sentence this week. Though here too, there was a sad and horrific confusion over identities.

The announcement this week of the decision to commute Indian national Sarabjit Singh’s capital sentence to a life term  and to release him  as he had served two decades in jail, was a short lived cause for celebration. The next day, it emerged it was not Sarabjit Singh they meant but rather Surjit Singh – who has also spent more than 20 years in prison after his death sentence was commuted to life term in 1989 - who will be released. 

The decision to back down on commuting Sarabjit Singh’s death sentence - whether due to a mistake or something else - is exceptionally cruel. But the death embodies the ultimate cruel and unusual punishment. That’s why we oppose it.

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